When someone says something you didn’t hear, what do you say? It turns out that most people around the world say ‘Huh?’, just like we do.
Linguists from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands listened to recordings of people speaking in 10 languages from around the world and found that every language had a word like ‘Huh?’ to fix misunderstandings in conversation.
Although words in most languages are hugely different from one another, the research found that this particular word sounds and works almost exactly the same in all languages.
“Our explanation is that it’s the same because all languages have the same need for a short and sweet word for quickly asking the other to repeat what we didn’t quite catch,” says linguist Mark Dingemanse.
So if you don’t follow what someone’s said, don’t worry. People all over the world are saying the same word with you: ‘Huh?’
This short article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Double Helix magazine. I wrote it to inject a bit of language and linguistics into this children’s science mag, and thought that the topic made for an interesting and accessible article. The research won one of the (in)famous Ig Nobel prizes, and the findings are incredible. The broader, follow-up study provides a lot more detail about the conversational act of “Other Initiated Repair”.
There are whole worlds of research out there, about things we don’t even know exist. Yet even the simplest conversations and utterances contain thousands of beautiful, intricate details.